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Dispatches: Maryland Main Street Rebirth -- ‘A Brave Group of Folks’

Small businesses find new ways to survive.

Yolanda Voss’s dedication to quality in her clothing designs has kept alive the dream she had in 1962 when she came to America from Ecuador. For Tom Reynolds, it’s been the redefinition of the family farm that has guided him in hard economic times. Mary Chizmadia and Mike Lanasa believe it’s their supportive community that will mean success.

They are among a dozen or so small business owners interviewed by Patch editors in this part of Maryland to try to find ways communities are coping in a severe economic downturn. For the most part, those interviewed used creativity and optimism to face economic uncertainty, and it seems to be working.

of her Columbia home in 1971, using the dining room table as a cutting surface. At the height of her success, she was designing for well-known women; notably fashioning a classic style wool coat with mink trim for First Lady Betty Ford in 1975.

Nearly 50 years later, Voss, 75, owns in historic Savage Mill, a former textile weaving business on the banks of the Little Patuxent River in Savage, MD, that is now a complex of buildings housing a variety of small shops. She is known for her hand-crafted wedding gowns, and orders come in from across the country.

"You cut corners, but you don't cut corners on quality," says Voss. "You still have to deliver the integrity of your service to maintain the reputation."

in Reisterstown, MD, has taken a different route, straying a bit from his core business to keep customers coming back.

“To survive in today’s economy, you just need little niches,” Reynolds said. “You have to make every square inch of land count.”

Winters at Farmer Tom's are busy, with pigs, horses and rabbits about, and beef cattle from being housed, and Tom's is a hub for Reisterstown families, drawing the community to its produce stand, hayrides and farm-fresh pumpkins. Although last summer was tough, Reynolds said he is optimistically heading into turkey season. His farm will process and sell thousands of Thanksgiving and Christmas birds.

In Catonsville, MD, Chizmadia is one of the owners of on Frederick Road with her son, Ken. The family returned to Catonsville from New Mexico to open the candy shop.

Nearby, Mike Lanasa and his family own , which moved from Ellicott City to historic Oella. Lanasa and his family took three years to renovate a former skating rink and dilapidated car shop. The economic downturn had just started, but instead of scrapping his plans Lanasa chose to take advantage of green energy tax credits and work with small contractors who needed customers.

"No matter what the economy [these business owners] are set on being in Catonsville and making something happen," said Executive Director Teal Cary.

On Oct. 26, both businesses held ceremonial ribbon cuttings at their newly renovated buildings, complete with local dignitaries, and the owners credited their close-knit community for giving them the courage to believe they could succeed.

Nationally, one-third of small business owners still believe the country is in a recession, and 27 percent say they don’t plan to grow in the next six months, according to a survey published this month by the American Express OPEN Small Business Monitor, a semiannual survey of business owners.

Also in October, consumer confidence fell to its lowest levels since 2009, when the country was in the midst of what some called the Great Recession.

“No question, it has been a tough few years for the folks on Main Street,” said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism, which, among other duties, helps organize events for merchants in the historic downtown area of Ellicott City. “I‘m just really proud of them. This is really when we’re going to step up. What a neat, brave group of folks down here.”

In many cases, it is the small “mom and pops” that are trying the innovative ideas to survive in the new economy, said Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland.

“The large property managers are not leading the way,” he said.

The ways surviving Maryland Main Street small businesses and their advocates have fared vary as much as the uniqueness of the businesses:

  • In Ellicott City, business owners have banded together to create a variety of themed days to draw customers to the historic downtown district. Some served free champagne to women at a recent event. On the of each month, there is a farmers’ market and other activities going on downtown.
  • Independent bookstore owner, Lauretta Nagel, in Reisterstown, said she’s cut down on employees and reduced hours. She has kept her business, Constellation Books, buzzing by selling ebooks, expanding her youth books section, starting a used books section, hosting author signings, beer and wine tastings and other events, and attending Star Trek conventions to sell sci-fi books.
  • Ruben Rojas, 53, owner of La Segunda Thrift Store, has moved to another building on Main Street in Laurel to share space with other tenants. He has been on Main Street for six years, and when the real estate market tanked in 2008, he said he soon could not afford to pay the mortgage on his business space after trying unsuccessfully to refinance.
  • The efforts to get the word out and survive are just as determined in Savage, where Voss is located.

In September, Savage Mill businesses pushed a combined "rediscover the Mill" campaign by taking out advertisements on buses, radio spots and television ads. Other tactics to lure patrons to the Mill over the past year have included cross-market sales and , said , managing partner of .

"Our 2011 is going to be slightly better than our 2010,” he said. “And 2010 was slightly better than 2009."

Through the ups and downs of the economy and personal success, Voss, the dress designer, still says her life is a realization of the American dream.

"I've been blessed by having all sorts of opportunities,” she said. “I think it's mostly because of the nature of American people. Because we come from so many countries, we appreciate the effort and we are there for the people who are willing to fight and work."

Laurel Patch Local Editor Joshua Garner contributed to this report.

You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.

Related Topics: Main Street, Small Business, dispatches, and Maryland

Cindy Stacy November 01, 2011 at 01:34 PM
Excellent story and thanks for touting the importance of small, independent businesses in the local marketplace and beyond.
Peter Monaghan November 01, 2011 at 01:40 PM
Great article! Way to promote the local business... many that I not yet heard of but I am now curious to try.

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